Losing the Faith, Feminism and Democracy
The belief that democratic theory condones undemocratic practice is not confined to feminist theorists. John Dunn has argued that there are 'two distinct and developed democratic theories loose in the world today - one dismally ideological and the other fairly blatantly Utopian'. On the dismally ideological account democracy is simply the least bad mechanism for securing a measure of responsibility on the part of the governors to the governed. By contrast, the blatantly Utopian account envisages a society in which all social arrangements represent the interests of all people. The former constitutes a practical proposal, but hardly an inspiring one; the latter may be inspiring, but it is hardly practical. Despairing of finding anything which can reflect democracy's status as both a high ideal and a practical proposal, Dunn concludes that 'today, in politics, democracy is the name for what we cannot have - yet cannot cease to want' [...] On Dunn's analysis the grounds for scepticism about democracy lie largely in the circumstances of modern life: the social and economic differentiation which are characteristic of the modern world necessarily generate inequalities which fit ill with the democratic ideal of political equality. Connectedly, the sheer size of modern states creates a rift between the individual and the community which makes it impossible for individuals to perceive the state as a focus of common good. Thus, democracy is not attainable in large, modern, postindustrial societies: as an ideal, it promises human fulfilment and human freedom, but in the modern world this promise cannot be met and democracy has therefore become at best a method of curbing the excesses of rulers, and at worst an idle, or even a Utopian dream.
But if Dunn fears that democracy cannot exist, given the nature of modern states, feminists note with some chagrin that democracy never did exist even prior to the growth of modern states: Carole Pateman briskly dismisses the subject, claiming that 'for feminists, democracy has never existed; women never have been and still are not admitted as full and equal members in any country known as a "democracy" [...]. Put together, the two accounts are deeply unsettling: Dunn tells us that without small states and an undifferentiated public there cannot be democracy. Feminists tell us that even when there were small states and an undifferentiated public, still there never was democracy. For feminists, the facts of history - the denial of the vote to women, their historical confinement to a domestic realm, their incorporation within the interests of their husbands - prove beyond doubt that for women democracy has never existed. For them, therefore, Dunn's lament is not even a lament for times past, but only a reflection on what might have been but in fact never was.
Why was there never democracy for women, and why is there still no democracy for women? A number of modern writers implicitly assume that it is because women have historically been denied equality under the law and the formal, political right to vote. For example, Robert Dahl recognizes that almost all the major writers in the democratic tradition excluded women from their theories, but he implies that this is merely evidence of the fact that philosophers are children of their time, and that the problem may be solved simply by rewriting references to 'all men' as 'all men and women' or 'all adults'. Thus, indicating that all is now well, he writes: 'In most countries women gained the suffrage only in this century, and in a few only after the Second World War. In fact, not until our own century did democratic theory and practice begin to reflect a belief that all (or virtually all) adults should be included in the demos as a matter of right' [...]. And this completes his discussion of the role of women in modern democratic states.
Dahl's optimism is grounded in his recognition that women are now formally equal citizens, and in his belief that this formal equality need not be fatally undermined by social and economic inequalities. He accepts the general claim that political equality is compromised by lack of economic power, but argues that this should not lead to the pessimistic conclusion that democracy is 'something we cannot have yet cannot cease to want'. Rather, it suggests the more robust conclusion that the pursuit of democracy includes the removal of social and economic inequalities. He writes:
Though the idea of equal opportunity is often so weakly interpreted that it is rightly dismissed as too undemanding, when it is taken in its fullest sense it is extraordinarily demanding - so demanding, indeed, that the criteria for the democratic process would require a people committed to it to ; institute measures well beyond those that even the most democratic states have hitherto brought about. [...]
For Dahl, therefore, inequality is a practical problem which admits of practical solutions. Since it is a widespread and intransigent problem, ther will be no 'quick fix', but there can be progress, and in tracing that progress Dahl does not see the need to make reference to any special feature of women's position beyond the recognition that they are, in general, amongst those who suffer from a lack of social and economic power. By implication, he denies that women constitute a special and intransigent problem for democratic theory. They are simply a specific example of a quite general, but remediable, problem, the problem of how to ensure that social and economic inequalities do not undermine the formal equality of the vote.
Many feminists dissent: although agreeing that there are practical problems, they also insist that, in the case of women, the problems have a theoretical origin which goes beyond mere social and economic inequality. Women, they argue, are different not simply because they lack economic and social power, but because historically they have been explicitly excluded from the category of citizen in the democratic state. So we might agree that democracy depends upon enlarging the economic power of those who are citizens, but so long as women (along with children, animals, and the insane) were excluded from that category, the question of enlarging their economic and social power frequently failed to arise. Indeed, women's economic power was normally identified with the economic power of their husbands, and the fact that wives themselves owned nothing was (and often still is) conveniently forgotten. Again, it is important to be clear about the status of this objection: usually, it is taken as simply a reflection on the historical facts of democratic societies, but it also contains the seeds of a criticism of democratic theory itself. The criticism may be made explicit by considering Dahl's two interpretations of what he calls 'the principle of inclusion' in democratic theory. This principle is the principle which dictates who shall count as a citizen in the democratic state, and therefore who shall have a say in determining the laws of the state.
Dahl notes that historically philosophers have vacillated between a contingent and a categorical principle of inclusion: thus, some urge that all adult members of a state are also, and thereby, citizens (the categorical criterion); others claim that only those who are qualified to rule may be citizens (the contingent claim). He concedes that the contingent criterion has been the most popular in the history of political philosophy, but urges that the categorical criterion is the appropriate one for modern democratic states. There should be no question of individuals having to prove their fitness to rule. The criterion for being a full citizen is simply that one is an adult member of the state in question. This, and this alone, justifies according rights of citizenship.
There is, however, a worrying tension between the assumptions inherent in the demand for increased social and economic equality and the assumptions inherent in the demand for a categorical criterion of citizenship. For the former recognizes that if citizenship is to be meaningful, more than formal equality is required, whereas the latter is content with a formal criterion for being or becoming a citizen. The danger is that acceptance of the categorical principle of inclusion, with its requirement that we ignore differences between people at the formal level, may lead to minimizing differences between people in framing social policy. Most importantly, it may lead to an understanding of difference, specifically women's differences, as disadvantage, disability, or deviance. If difference is the problem at the level of inclusion, then the removal of difference may be thought to be the solution at the level of social policy. Thus, to provide a concrete example, pregnancy is often treated as akin to illness, and maternity leave as a special case of sick-leave. Pregnant women are then equated with men who are ill or temporarily disabled, and the attempt to attain 'equality' for them rests on the assumption that they are, in effect, disabled men. By this strategy, inequalities are certainly reduced because women attain something by way of maternity benefit, and something is surely better than nothing. But the importance of the practical benefits should not disguise the fact that the theoretical assumptions of the strategy are assimilationist and patriarchal. Women attain a degree of equality only by conceding that the differences between themselves and men are differences which carry the implication of female inferiority. Moreover, this is not simply a complaint about the practical arrangements governing pregnancy and childbirth; it is a more general concern about the unspoken assumptions of many democratic theorists, specifically their assumption that equality is to be attained via the removal or minimization of disadvantage, where what counts as disadvantage is held to be clear and uncontroversial, but is in fact determined by reference to a model which is intrinsically male.
Considerations of this sort highlight the fact that for women lack of social and economic power is only half the story: it is not simply bad luck that women, in general, lack economic power. It is the male model of normality which guarantees that that will be so. Iris Marion Young expresses the point forcefully.
In my view an equal treatment approach to pregnancy and childbirth is inadequate because it either implies that women do not have any right to leave and job security when having babies, or assimilates such guarantees under the supposedly gender-neutral category of 'disability' ... Assimilating pregnancy and disability tends to stigmatize these processes as 'unhealthy'. [...]
It is for this reason that many feminists have found it difficult to retain faith in democracy and democratic theory. And, as we have seen, the loss of faith occurs at several levels: historically, feminists are aware that the denial of difference at the level of inclusion has rarely been observed. Most philosophers have noted differences between men and women, and have argued that these differences support the exclusion of women from even the rights of formal political equality. More recently, feminists have drawn attention to the fact that even where the categorical criterion has been employed, it has not been accompanied by any strenuous efforts to remove the social and economic disadvantages suffered by women, and therefore formal political equality has been undermined by practical social and economic inequality. Finally, and most importantly, many feminists now doubt whether the denial or removal of difference is even an acceptable aim for political theory and practice. Again, the doubts arise on two levels. Anne Phillips has argued that the individualistic character of modern philosophy makes it inadequate for feminist purposes. She notes:
The anti-discrimination that informs much contemporary liberalism implies removing obstacles that block an individual's path and then applauding when that individual succeeds. The problem is still perceived in terms of previous w/streatment, which judged and dismissed people because they had deviated from some prejudiced norm. The answers presented in terms of treating them just as people instead. [...]
Where difference is interpreted as deviance or disadvantage, the response to it is to implement social policy which will minimize the effects of that disadvantage in the specific case. This individualistic response has been countered by the demand that what is required is recognition of group disadvantage. Far from asserting that it should not matter whether we are men or women, this strata insists that men and women do have different degrees of power and that therefore policies should be implemented which take account of this fact and guarantee increased power to women as a group.
The second response is rather different. It denies that difference is always to be construed as disadvantage and, in the case of women, urges a restructuring of both political theory and political practice in such a way as to celebrate at least some differences. In other words, it denies that all difference is disability, and it objects to the strategy whereby the 'disadvantages' of pregnancy and childbirth are mitigated by assimilating them to male illness. So, where democratic theorv characteristically urges that we should assume that everyone is the same, feminists urge a recognition that men and women are different. Similarly, where democratic theorists have urged that, in decisions about social policy, we should aim to minimize the disadvantages which spring from difference, feminists aslt why such normal states as pregnancy should be categorized as disadvantages at all.
For feminists, therefore, losing the faith has been losing faith in the ability of doctrines of equality, understood as doctrines which advocate the minimization of difference, to deliver a political theory which will be sensitive to the realities of women's lives. The solution to this problem lies in a rewriting of democratic theory in such a way as to ensure that it acknowledges and incorporates difference. Most importantly, it lies in a recognition that, in the case of women, the disadvantages which spring from difference are themselves politically significant. They are disadvantages inherent in not being male. So democratic theory falls at the first hurdle because it in fact employs a male, rather than a gender-neutral, standard by which to decide what counts as disadvantage.
The proposed solution is not without its dangers: oppressed and disadvantaged groups have long used a doctrine of equality as their most important single weapon, and have appealed to such concepts as 'common humanity' in their attempts to attain political and legal rights. Moreover, they have vigorously denied the significance of difference in political contexts, and urged that differences between them and other, more advantaged, groups should be ignored in the distribution of political rights. It is therefore a discomfiting about-face for feminist theorists now to insist on a politics of difference; and to pin their faith in the possibility that difference may be acknowledged, not construed as disadvantage.
To what extent do feminists wish to attack democratic ideals, and to what extent do they wish to reconstruct them? Is their argument that we should substitute an acceptance of difference for the demand for equality, or that the demand for equality itself requires a full and sensitive recognition of the practical significance of difference?
REVISING THE FAITH
Some critics have argued that feminists do indeed reject the ideal of equality, and that they do so because they wrongly assume that equality is at odds with the recognition of difference. Thus, Richard Norman writes: 'Equality does not require the elimination of difference. Sexual equality, in particular, does not require a denial of the inescapable biological facts of sexual difference, and leaves open what further differences might follow from these' [...]. Certainly some feminists have spoken of equality in dismissive terms, and have urged that we should pay less attention to it. Virginia Held, for example says:
Occasionally, for those who give birth, equality will be an important concept as we strive to treat children fairly and have them treat each other with respect. But it is normally greatly overshadowed by such other concerns as that the relationship between ourselves and our children and each other be trusting and considerate. [...]
But this is simply the point that equality is not the only concept in moral and political life. It is not the complaint that equality necessarily conflicts with difference. And more generally, when feminists express reservations about equality, it is because they recognize that democratic theory itself has interpreted it as requiring the elimination or minimization of difference. In general, it is not feminists who urge that equality and difference are incompatible concepts; it is democratic theory which does that by its insistence on a specific understanding of equality - as something to be attained by the minimization of difference. The crucial debate in contemporary feminism is the debate between those who urge that sex should become irrelevant and those who believe that sex should not provide the basis for inequality. Neither of these strategies I involves rejecting equality. Rather, the dispute is about how equality is to be attained.
However, the strategic problem is acute in the case of women for the simple reason that, unlike social and economic differences, sexual difference cannot be removed by social policy in quite the simple way which the theory requires. Where inequalities of power spring simply from social and economic inequal ities, there is some hope of removing them by seeking to minimize them -though the task would be difficult. But where inequalities of power spring from sex, it may be morally undesirable, or even impossible, to attempt to remove them by this approach. Of course, such strategies have been used, and with great success, by early feminists in their attempt to secure equal legal and political rights for women. But feminists are now sceptical about such attempts, fearing that ultimately they leave for women only the possibility of assimilation into a male world. Speaking about her own 'assimilation' feminism, Simone de Beauvoir said: 'the modern woman accepts masculine values: she prides herself on thinking, taking action, working, creating, on the same terms as men; instead of seeking to disparage them, she declares herself their equal' [...]. But the price of this form of feminism is high for, as Simone de Beauvoir herself concedes, it is incompatible with child care and mothering. This not only means that, for many women, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to 'win the game', it also means accepting the rules of the game - where those rules dictate that pregnancy is an illness and child care a disadvantage.
What is needed, therefore, is a way of conceptualizing difference which renders it compatible with equality, but also, and crucially, does not simply increase social differentiation. Yet more radically, what is needed is a recognition that in much traditional democratic theory the concepts of equality, difference, and disadvantage are themselves gender-biased: they assume a standard of normality which is inherently male.
What are the possibilities of re-conceptualizing in this way? How can democratic states revise the ideal in a way which acknowledges difference as both ineliminable and valuable? At this stage, it is worth emphasizing that it is not only feminists who should have a strong interest in this question. Modern states are characterized by the heterogeneity of the people who inhabit them. Unlike fifth-century Athens, or Rousseau's ideal state, they are not gatherings of the like-minded, gentlemen's clubs writ large, where those who deviate may be excluded or required to conform. The denial of citizenship to all but white males is no longer an option, nor is the easy assumption that newcomers must earn their right to citizenship by becoming 'like us'. Difference is not going to go away, nor is it something for which those who are different feel disposed to apologize. Against this background, the insistence that equality is to be preserved via the minimization of difference, or via -assimitation itself appears Utopian and the complaint that the differentiation of modern life militates against democracy may elicit the response: 'so much the worse for democracy'.